ADVERTISEMENT

It's an impressive sight – as many as 13 well-behaved dogs, ranging in size from a tiny Yorkshire terrier to an enormous mastiff, walking in a group in a neighborhood off Sheridan Drive in Amherst. Enjoying the walk almost as much as their tail-wagging escorts are their owners, a dozen or so residents of the quiet streets in the Village Green neighborhood, Plenty has been written about the physical benefits to both people and dogs of regular walking. Not surprisingly, pets and people who take walks are more fit. Dogs, propelled by their innate need to be active and explore their surroundings for interesting scents, tend to insist on their daily walks, motivating their people to be more active. But nobody should underestimate the importance – for the people, not the animals – of the social and emotional ties created and strengthened by the simple act of dog-walking. In setting up a study to encourage people to walk their dogs, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell wrote, “Dog owners report [having] an easier time meeting people, perceive their neighborhood as more friendly and engage in more community activities.” The presence of dog-walkers, who are among the first to notice a suspicious person, vehicle, or event, also makes a neighborhood safer. Last year in Wales, when local police invited dog-walkers to help them keep an eye on neighborhoods, a spokesman said, “Dog walkers spend a lot of time out and about in their communities and would be highly likely to recognize when something is out of the ordinary is happening.” Members of the Village Green dog-walker group had none of this in mind in 2003 when they started meeting up by chance as they walked their dogs. Mary Dimock, one of what she calls the “core group,” had just gotten her golden retriever, Leah. “Bob Strell and I started walking together – he lives just around the corner,” Dimock says. “Then we ran into Sharon Plant, who had two dogs at the time. We got to know each other just because we were always walking together. Sharon and I had kids who were in the same grade, so we would see each other at school functions, and we would sit together there.” “This really is the greatest group of people,” says Strell. “And dogs, too.” “I've gotten to know people who I never would have known, and have become friends with them,” says Dimock. Of course, the people learned the dogs' names before they learned the humans' names. “As you walk more and more you get to know the people's names,” says Dimock. Today, the three still walk together, although some of the dogs are new, including Plant's beagles, Sadie and Molly, and basset hound Zoey. Wiley, Strell's 15-year-old shar pei-Doberman mix, maintains a more sedate pace but is nearly as interested in the walks as the group's young pups. “I think his girlfriends energize him,” says Strell of the other dogs, many of whom are female. Several of the dogs are from rescues or shelters; three, including Leah, are therapy dogs who volunteer at nursing homes and other institutions. “You never know who you're going to pick up along the way,” says Strell as the group starts down a sidewalk on their jaunt, which can range from just a block or so to a couple of miles, depending on the weather. As if on cue, Lisa Genau emerges from her house with her poodle-schnauzer mix, Jeter, and after a round of sniffing, the group starts walking again. A half-block away, an unleashed dog comes running across lawns toward the group. The members know the dog and where he lives, so they shoo him back home. When he persists in trying to mix, most of them cross the street while Genau and Jeter escort him back to his own lawn. A few times a year, the group gathers the dogs for a backyard party where they can unclip their leashes. Hosted by Steve and Cecile Reszka and their mastiff, Bailey, the dog party draws most of the regulars and many of the occasional walkers. “The dog party has been going on for a couple of years, because they have a huge fenced-in backyard,” says Dimock. “They are very dog-friendly and when we go by their house, my dog just runs to the door and barks to go in. They have treats for them, and the dogs seem to think of it almost as a second home. My dog has a favorite ball there that she has to leave at their house, and she wants to go right into their backyard and play.” At the party, humans chat and enjoy snacks while the dogs romp. Dimock says, “They all get along, and they are delighted to get off leash and run around in the fenced yard together. Some chase balls, some just like to lie around.” At a recent party, the humans chuckled at a platter of dog morsels displayed like hors d'oeuvres. The bonds that were created through months of dog-walking and strengthened through the get-togethers make life easier for the neighbors. They have let out, fed, or even housed each other's dogs when the owners are out of town or kept late somewhere. And who better to step in during an emergency than a person just next door whom the dog already knows? “We help each other with the dogs whenever we can,” says Dimock. “And the offer [to do so] is always there.” Sometimes it's the dogs who help out. Before the Reszkas got Bailey, when they were temporarily between dogs, “Leah was their surrogate dog for a while,” says Dimock. Leah would visit them for affection “and a biscuit, too.” Sometimes other neighbors come to the aid of the dog-walkers. Once a group of them was caught in a downpour, and a neighbor opened his garage door and let them shelter inside until Strell's wife could come and get them. Twice the walkers have reacted to hazardous situations, once when they saw smoke coming from behind a house. “It was just a fire pit that hadn't gone out, but we checked it out,” says Dimock. Another time the walkers helped out police who were looking for a man that had fled an altercation on a nearby street. “We are always aware of people in the neighborhood,” says Dimock. “Also, we sometimes get asked for directions and we're good at giving them.” Although very cold or blustery weather keeps Plant's beagles and bassett on the couch, most of the group walks daily. Besides the 4:30 to 5 p.m. gathering, many walks – and encounters – are spontaneous. But, Dimock says, “If we haven't seen each other in a while, we will text to ask, 'Are you walking today?' and make plans to meet.” The youngest of the dog-walkers is a 19-year-old who just started walking with his sheltie mix, “a sweet dog,” says Dimock. Neighbors with friendly dogs are always welcome, she says. Naturally, when six or eight people are walking, they break up into twos and threes to stay on the sidewalk, and the slower dogs fall back, making the group look even larger. “Some people just stop and stare when they see us,” says Plant. “It's quite a sight. I met a guy in Wegmans who said, 'I know you! You walk the neighborhood with all those dogs!' ” email: aneville@buffnews.com